Ben Blaschke, NRL.com
Knights v Broncos
It’s that time of year when every week, every game, every tackle counts. Yep, the representative season is a distant memory and now the race is on to lock up a top-eight spot. With each win or each loss, the equation changes which makes for fascinating viewing for the casual rugby league observer.
And that will certainly be the case at Hunter Stadium this week as Newcastle and Brisbane look to take a giant step towards their September ambitions.
The Knights have been in good touch over the past month and but for a few telling plays against competition favourites the Sydney Roosters last Sunday could well have come away with a famous victory. As it was, they fell to their first loss in four outings yet despite that impressive run they still find themselves clinging desperately to eighth spot, ahead of the red-hot Warriors on points differential alone.
Nothing short of victory will do this week if they want to ease the pressure somewhat and coach Wayne Bennett would no doubt like to see their improvement this season rewarded on the Telstra Premiership ladder.
For their opponents, the equation is as simple as it gets given that one more loss will pretty much end their season.
The Broncos have endured a tough time of it lately but they produced a stirring performance when they need it most last week to down local rivals North Queensland and keep their finals hopes alive.
Coach Anthony Griffin is a popular man among the Brisbane playing group and is renowned for being fiercely loyal to those he believes are the best fit for the task at hand but he might have wielded the axe just in time to save the side’s fledgling season. In the lead-up to the must-win Cowboys game he axed fullback Corey Norman and reinstated Josh Hoffman at the back, while halfback Peter Wallace was relegated to the bench with Ben Hunt coming into the halves.
Whether it was a calculated gamble or simply a ‘Hail Mary’ we might never know but whatever the case, Brisbane responded with victory and would no doubt have the sides above them looking over their shoulders if they were to make it two in a row against the Knights this week.
Injury to Willie Mason and Kade Snowden’s suspension sees David Fa’alogo and Zane Tetevano in the starting front row positions, with Adam Cuthbertson and Korbin Sims coming onto the bench.
With Alex Glenn sidelined for a month with injury, David Stagg becomes the latest player to fill in at centre with Nick Slyney added to the bench.
Notably, the Knights haven’t won a Friday night game since September 2011 with four consecutive losses in the meantime.
Watch Out Knights: Corey Norman presented a real threat as an extra playmaker when he filled the No.1 jersey for the Broncos but now Josh Hoffman poses a very different danger. Hoffman’s greatest asset is his kick return, which is strong and powerful and plays a significant role in getting the side set up for the ensuing set of six. The Kiwi international didn’t take long to make his mark after being handed the No.1 jersey last week – running for 130 metres and adding three tackle-breaks against North Queensland.
Watch Out Broncos: Newcastle are at their most dangerous when their back three are fit and firing and that’s exactly why they’ve been performing so well over the past month.
Fullback Darius Boyd has returned from State of Origin in brilliant form – scoring a long-range solo try and setting up another last week – while wingers James McManus and Akuila Uate have also been dangerous. McManus has scored 17 tries from 18 games and averaged 112 metres in 2013 while Uate has scored 10 from 15 and averaged 139 metres with the ball in hand.
Plays To Watch: The Darius Boyd second-man play on Newcastle’s left edge. That old chestnut that worked so well at St George Illawarra has proven just as effective at the Knights – which is why left winger James McManus has reaped the benefits with 17 tries this year. Boyd loves wrapping around his decoy, receiving the ball and then picking which man to give the ball to on his outside once the overlap is created. It actually worked twice last week against the Roosters. The first saw him throw a short ball to Joseph Leilua whose last pass to unmarked McManus was unfortunately wayward; however they got it right in the second half when Boyd threw the long ball straight to McManus to score.
Key Match-Up: Darius Boyd v Josh Hoffman. So much revolves around these two men this week. Boyd has been superb for the Knights over the past month with some brilliant kick returns and his ability to chime into the backline. Hoffman, meanwhile, returned to fullback last week and helped his side to a season-saving victory. Can he do it again?
Where It Will Be Won: We all know that forwards are there to lay a platform for their outside backs, but if the speedsters can’t get the job done it’s difficult to get the two points. That’s what this game could well come down to this week – who can turn their opportunities into points.
Newcastle can be lethal at their best but paid the price for missed chances last week against the Roosters, while getting across the try line has been Brisbane’s Achilles heel all season. They’ve all had long enough to work on it now – it’s time to get it right.
The History: Played 39; Broncos 27, Knights 12. The Knight have won just three of their past 12 games against Brisbane while the Broncos boast a great record at Hunter Stadium with six wins from their past nine trips.
Match Officials: Referees – Ben Cummins & Chris James; Sideline Officials – Steve Carrall & Rickey McFarlane; Video Referees – Steve Chiddy & Henry Perenara.
Televised: Channel 9 – Live 7.30pm (Qld), delayed 9.30pm (NSW).
The Way We See It: A classic Friday night contest between two sides desperate to keep their season on track should provide some high-quality football. Despite Brisbane scoring a huge win against North Queensland last week, the Knights are a very different proposition. They are in good form, are always tough at Hunter Stadium and should have too many weapons for this Broncos outfit. Knights by 10 points.
*Statistics: NRL Stats